Bad News For Florida Permit And Bonefish?

Next Thursday, December 10, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will meet to discuss possible changes in regulatory rules for both permit and bonefish populations in Florida.

These new proposals seem to rollback any protection permit might have had and seem to go against recreational anglers wishes in getting them elevated to gamefish status. Some of the new proposals include for the first time spear-fishing for the fish and no spawning season closures. The bonefish rules aren't as cut and dried as the permit rules, but do include a very strange translation of the phrase "catch and release."

To better understand the situation read this op-ed from Midcurrent.com Please also visit tarbone.org for more up-to-date information as it unfolds.

The proposals for both fish are below and are from BTT.

Permit: It appears that FWC staff recommendations may create additional threats to permit populations. The draft FWC staff recommendations include: allow spearfishing for permit in federal waters; no spawning season closure; continuation of commercial fishing for permit; no catch and release status.

- Spearfishing: the FWC staff recommendations suggest that spearfishing for permit be allowed. Spearfishing for permit is now prohibited in State waters, but there are no such regulations in Federal waters. The staff recommendation will legitimize spearfishing of permit spawning aggregations over artificial reefs.

- No spawning season closure: The recommendation for no spawning season closure is based on a supposed lack of information on spawning timing and location. An FWC study published in 2002* identifies spawning season (peak: May-June) and habitats (over artificial and reef promontories). Harvest of spawning aggregations may expose permit populations to declines experienced by other species: harvesting of spawning aggregations of Nassau grouper and mutton snapper, for example, has led to overfished populations.

- Commercial Fishery: Lack of data on commercial harvest of permit is worrisome, given declines of other species that lacked fisheries harvest data.

- Cause for concern: FWC staff does not recommend a program to obtain the data necessary to effectively manage the fishery. The 2002 FWC publication* states that "permit spawning stock biomass could decrease quickly in response to moderate levels of fishing mortality". This suggests that a precautionary approach should be taken, especially since FWC has very little data on the permit fishery or permit populations (a stock assessment has not been done). Permit stocks can't be monitored for effectively unless data are available.

*Crabtree et al. 2002. Age, growth, and reproduction of permit (Trachinotus falcatus) in Florida waters. Fishery Bulletin. 100: 26-34.

Bonefish: In Fall 2008, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust sent a letter to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission requesting that FWC make bonefish a 'catch and release' species. In doing so, BTT felt that this would elevate the conservation status of bonefish, thus bringing much needed attention to the management of the fishery and habitats, and bring Florida in line with the recent establishment of bonefish, tarpon, and permit as catch and release in Belize. The BTT Bonefish Initiative requested:

- Bonefish should be a strictly catch-and-release species.

- Remove all mention of "possession" from the new law.

- Bonefish may be briefly and carefully handled for photos, biological measuring, etc., but then are required to be released unharmed.

- Recommend institution by FWC of a "Bonefish Trophy Tag". The tag would be used ONLY in cases where a bonefish is to be harvested. Harvest will be defined strictly as moribund fish in the cooler (permanently kept for biological records), or one that is temporarily held in the live-well of a fishing vessel for transport to a tournament weigh-station, prior to its subsequent release.

- Funds generated by trophy tag sales should be allocated to bonefish research

At the FWC Bonefish Workshops in October 2009, FWC staff stated that the FWC interpretation was that "catch and release" was equivalent to "prohibited species". Based on FWC's interpretation, this means that even touching the fish (e.g., holding a bonefish to take a photo, remove a hook, or to measure) constitutes '"possession" and a fine/ticket if witnessed by an FWC enforcement officer. This interpretation is counter to responsible fisheries conservation.

Catch and release is used as a fisheries management tool throughout the United States and in many places in the world. In these locations, catch and release is interpreted as releasing the fish alive soon after capture. Responsibly photographing, measuring, and weighing of the fish are permitted in these states.

The interpretation of "catch and release" by FWC may also have other implications not yet realized. For example, FWC states that "temporary possession of a fish for the purpose of measuring it to determine compliance with the minimum or maximum size requirements of this chapter shall not constitute harvesting such fish, provided that it is measured immediately after taking, and immediately returned to the water free, alive, and unharmed if undersize or oversize." Under FWC's interpretation of possession and catch-and-release, any handling of a recreational species during closed seasons (e.g., snook and spotted seatrout), would be illegal. A person catching a snook, for example, during a closed season is not going to measure the fish to determine if the fish is within the harvest slot limit, so any handling of the fish for photographs, weighing, or other purposes related to catch and release would be illegal. This example underscores the need for a more progressive interpretation of "catch and release" by FWC.

FWC Meeting
When and Where:
December 10, 2009; 8:30am
John Boy Auditorium
1200 South W.C. Owen Avenue
Clewiston, FL 33440